Celebrating Día de los Muertos: A Melding of Indigenous and Catholic Traditions
Written by Clare Roach, M.Ed. on Thursday, 15 October 2015.
Clare Roach, Coordinator of the English as a New Language (ENL) program, offers advice and resources for educators to celebrate the Latino cultural traditions of Día de los Muertos
Celebrating Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, in Catholic school classrooms in the United States is a magnificent way to encourage students to pray for and honor deceased family and friends. It also provides an opportunity for Mexican and Central American-origin students to witness their school community learning from the beauty and richness of their own cultural heritage. Observing Día de los Muertos in school doesn’t just help students celebrate their culture, it helps them sustain it.
Like Halloween, Día de los Muertos is a holiday linked to the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls in the Catholic liturgical calendar. But, unlike Halloween, which is largely about candy and parties, Día de los Muertos is a family-centered holiday that celebrates the lives of loved ones who have died and the generations of ancestors who have gone before us. From family picnics at grave sites to lavishly decorated home altars to the aroma of marigolds and pan de muerto, the celebration of Día de los Muertos is as beautiful as it is profound. The following resources and lessons will help children young and old learn about this magnificent holiday.
- Food for the Ancestors is a 60-minute DVD produced by PBS that explains Day of the Dead through food, art and celebration. It takes viewers to the streets, homes, bakeries, cemeteries and churches of Puebla, Mexico, and presents one of the most colorful, in-depth portraits of the holiday. Order this DVD from PBS for teachers to watch and integrate into their lessons.
- Discover Day of the Dead is a 5-minute video from The Discovery Channel that shows a quick glimpse of how Day of the Dead is observed in Patzcuaro, Mexico.
- The PBS cartoon characters, Maya and Miguel, explain the holiday to young viewers in a 22-minute episode. Here’s a two-minute snippet of the program in which Maya’s abuelita explains why the beautifully decorated calavera (skull) is so important to her.
- Scholastic has put together a wonderful list of children’s books that address Día de los Muertos.
- The November 2010 edition of Scholastic News magazine focuses exclusively on Día de los Muertos. You can find digital downloads of the magazine here.
- This article by the Smithsonian Institution is an excellent non-fiction text for older students (grades 5-12) and explains how the holiday is a melding of indigenous and Catholic traditions.
- "All Saint’s Day All Night" is beautiful story from Highlights for Kids magazine (November 2010 issue) that shows how a similar holiday is celebrated in Poland! It provides another great opportunity to spotlight how different cultures celebrate the Feast of All Saints and All Souls.
Art and Activities
- Create ofrendas: Have students make alters to celebrate loved ones who are deceased. This lesson plan from the University of North Carolina excellent ideas. Extensions of this activity include:
- History: Create an ofrenda for historical figures.
- Language Arts: Create an ofrenda for characters in a novel.
- Religion: Create an ofrenda for a saint or decorate an altar in the church or cemetery on the school's property.
- Decorate calaveras: Ornate sugar skulls are one of the most important images connected with the celebration of Día de los Muertos. Here are a few simple ways to integrate them into lessons:
- Compare and Contrast Halloween and Day of the Dead:
- This Day of the Dead Educational Activity Guide is a wonderful collection of readings and activities (includes a step-by-step lesson on papel picado) produced by the Museum of Mexic-Arte in Austin, Texas. It takes a very cross-cultural perspective and provides multiple ideas for art activities.
Want to learn more about culturally sustaining pedagogy? Apply to the ENL Program today.
Photos by Nathan Solis, courtesy of the Eastsider LA.
Originally appeared in Students learn about love, death & Dia de los Muertos at an East L.A. cemetery, October 30, 2014.